News and Articles

Monthly Archives: January 2012

SEC Charges Two Brothers with Illegal Naked Short Selling

The Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) alleged that the brothers engaged in illegal naked short-sales after failing to locate and deliver shares involved in short-sales to broker-dealers.  The SEC stated that “[b]y engaging in naked short selling, [Respondents] had a major advantage over competitors who complied with the law and incurred the costs associated with actually borrowing securities.”

Short selling is a legal, advanced trading strategy.  The SEC rules require short sellers to locate shares to borrow before selling them short, and they must deliver the borrowed securities by a specific date. Naked short-selling occurs when the transaction is performed without having borrowed the securities to make delivery.

According to the SEC’s order, from July 2006 to July 2007, Respondents engaged in various types of intricate investment transactions to accomplish their scam.  Respondents were able to engage in “naked” short sales by routinely engaging in combinations of “reverse conversion,” “reset”, and “assist” transactions.  Respondents generated more than $17 million in ill-gotten gains from the transactions involving stocks including Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., Novastar Financial Inc., and NYSE Group.  Per his own admission, one Respondent stated in a recorded telephone call “[w]hat I sell them is not guaranteed, it never gets delivered, its funny paper.”

The SEC alleged that Respondents violated the locate and close-out requirements of Regulation SHO of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

SEC Charges Latvia Trader in Brazen Stock Price Manipulation Scheme

The Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) charged Igors Nagaicevs, a 34 year old Latvian citizen, with conducting a widespread online account intrusion scheme in which he manipulated the prices of more than 100 NYSE and Nasdaq securities, and caused more than $2 million in harm to U.S. investors.

According to the SEC complaint, between June 2009 and August 2010, Nagaicevs hijacked online accounts and made unauthorized purchases and sales of securities.  By doing this, Nagaicevs manipulated the prices of stocks in which he already held positions, and was thereby later able to sell at a profit.  The entire pattern was always completed within the same trading day, often within minutes.  Nagaicevs engaged in this pattern on at least 159 occasions, generating more than $850,000.00 in illegal profits.  The unauthorized activity caused losses in excess of $2 million, which were reimbursed by the broker-dealer firms that carried the hijacked accounts.

Simultaneously, the SEC initiated administrative actions against the four electronic trading firms that allowed Nagaicevs to trade through their platforms without registering him as broker.  The SEC stated, “[t]hese firms provided unfettered access to trade in the U.S. securities markets on an essentially anonymous basis.”  The trading firms named in the SEC’s administrative actions relating to this scam are:  (1) Alchemy Ventures, Inc. of San Mateo, California; (2) KM Capital Management, LLC of Philadelphia; (3) Zanshin Enterprises, LLC of Boise, Idaho; and (4) Mercury Capital of La Jolla, California.  The SEC’s administrative action will determine whether the non-settling trading firms and principals violated the broker registration provisions of the federal securities laws.

SEC Charges Boiler Room Operators in Florida-Based Penny Stock Manipulation Scheme

The Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) charged First Resource Group, LLC, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida based firm, and its founder, David H. Stern, with conducting a fraudulent boiler room scheme in which they hyped stocks in two thinly traded companies, while behind the scenes they allegedly sold the same stock themselves for illegal profits.

The SEC charged that from December 2008 to May 2010, First Resource signed contracts with two promoters to solicit investors to buy stock of TrinityCare Senior Living, Inc. and Cytta Corporation.  In return, First Resource received shares of each company’s stock as compensation for soliciting investors.  Stern and First Resource used telemarketers to contact investors.  While the First Resource telemarketers were recommending that investors purchase TrinityCare and Cytta stock, Stern was selling the shares he received as compensation.  Stern also allegedly manipulated the markets for the two stocks, purchasing small amounts of each stock at prices above the market to raise the market price and create the false appearance of legitimate trading activity.  Furthermore, First Resource and Stern allegedly acted as unregistered broker-dealers.  The SEC’s complaint alleged that First Resource Group and Stern violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, Sections 10(b) and 15(a) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5.

FINRA Warns Investors of Email Hack Attacks

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) has received an increasing number of complaints from investors whose funds have been stolen by fraudsters.  Hackers access investors’ email accounts and later send email instructions to the brokerage firms, seeking to transfer money from brokerage accounts.

FINRA’s Alert warns investors about the potential financial consequences of a compromised email account, and provides tips for safeguarding assets.  Simultaneously, FINRA issued a Regulatory Notice advising Members of the risks associated with accepting instructions to transmit or withdraw funds via email.  According to FINRA, brokerage firms should reassess their policies and procedures to ensure they are adequate to protect customer assets from these risks. FINRA stated, “Investors who suspect that their email account has been hacked should immediately notify their brokerage firm and other financial institutions, and anyone who suspects they have been defrauded should file a complaint with FINRA.”

This law firm was recently consulted by a client whose account was hacked.  When the client complained to the brokerage firm, the firm refused to reimburse the client, blaming the client for the hack attack.  The client’s only recourse was initiating a FINRA arbitration.

Merrill Lynch to pay $1 Million for Failure to Arbitrate Disputes with Employees

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced today that it has fined Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith $1 million for failing to arbitrate disputes with employees relating to retention bonuses.

FINRA’s investigation found that on January 2009, when Merrill Lynch merged with Bank of America, an Advisor Transition Program (ATP) was implemented.  Under the ATP, Merrill Lynch would pay a lump sum retention payment to certain high producing registered representatives.  The ATP was structured as an up-front forgivable loan to entice Merrill Lynch’s high producing brokers to stay with the firm after the merger.

In January 2009, Merrill Lynch paid $2.8 billion in retention bonuses structured as loans to over 5,000 registered representatives.  In most cases, the loans were set up to be forgiven by Merrill Lynch on an annual basis.  If the financial advisor stayed with the firm through the duration of the forgiveness period of the loan, the broker would not have to repay the loan.  If, however, the financial advisor resigned from the brokerage firm, or was terminated, before the loan was forgiven, the broker was contractually obligated to repay the outstanding amounts owed on the loan and the Merrill Lynch could move to collect the outstanding amount still owed.

According to FINRA, Merrill Lynch designed the ATP programs so it could avoid arbitration proceedings when seeking to collect amounts due under the ATP loans.  Merrill Lynch achieved this by stating that the loans were being made to the registered representatives by a non-registered affiliate of Merrill Lynch, when in fact, the funding for the ATP loans came from Merrill Lynch.  The program was structured to allow Merrill Lynch to pursue collection of the amounts under the loans in expedited proceedings in New York state court.  FINRA rules require that disputes between firms and associated persons be arbitrated if they arise out of the business activities of the firm or associated person.  Between January and November 2009, Merrill Lynch filed over 90 of these actions in New York state court, violating FINRA Rule 2010.

Brad Bennett, FINRA Executive Vice President and Chief of Enforcement, said, “Merrill Lynch specifically designed this bonus program to bypass FINRA’s rule requiring firms to arbitrate disputes with employees, and purposefully filed expedited collection actions in New York State courts and denied those registered representatives a forum to assert counterclaims.”

SEC Charged a “Criminal Club” with Insider-Trading in Dell, Inc. Shares

On January 18, 2012, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged two multi-billion dollar hedge fund advisory firms as well as seven fund managers and analysts involved in a $78 million insider trading scheme based on nonpublic information about Dell’s quarterly earnings.

Insider-trading is an illegal activity when a corporation’s stock or other securities are traded by individuals with special knowledge or access to non-public information about the company, giving them an unfair advantage over regular investors.  The SEC states that this case involves insider trading by members of a network closely associated hedge fund trades who illegally obtained material nonpublic information concerning public companies Dell, Inc and/or Nvidia Corporation, exchanged that information with others, and reaped massive profits from trading on that information.

Manhattan U.S Attorney, Preet Bharara, described the group of individuals involved as “a circle of friends who essentially formed a criminal club, whose purpose was profit and whose members regularly bartered lucrative inside information. It was a club where everyone scratched everyone else’s back.”  The Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement said in a statement that “These are not low-level employees succumbing to temptation by seizing a chance opportunity. These are sophisticated players who built a corrupt network to systematically and methodically obtain and exploit illegal inside information again and again at the expense of law-abiding investors and the integrity of the markets.”

The SEC alleges that during at least 2008, investment analyst Sandeep “Sandy” Goyal illegally obtained Dell quarterly earnings information and other performance data from an insider at Dell.  Goyal then tipped Diamondback Capital Management, LLC analyst Jesse Tortora with the inside information in advance of Dell’s first and second quarter earnings announcements in 2008, Tortora then tipped his portfolio manager at Diamondback, Todd Newman, then he traded on the information on behalf of the Diamondback hedge funds he controlled.  Tortora also tipped Spyridon “Sam” Adondakis, an analyst at Level Global Investors, L.P.  Adondakis tipped his manager Anthony Chiasson, who then traded on the inside information on behalf of Level Global hedge funds.  According to the SEC’s complaint, Tortora also tipped two others at firms other than Diamondback or Level Global with the Dell inside information: Jon Horvath of New York City and Danny Kuo of San Marino, Calif.  The SEC complaint further alleges that in addition to engaging in insider trading in Dell securities, at least five of the seven individual defendants and both investment adviser firm defendants obtained material nonpublic information concerning Nvidia, and traded on the basis of that information and/or passed the information on to other who traded.

The SEC’s investigation and complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan is part of an ongoing four-year old insider-trading probe named “Operation Perfect Hedge”, which so far has resulted in 63 arrests and 56 convictions.

UBS Global Asset Management Charged by SEC for Fund Overvaluation

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged an investment advisory arm of UBS with failing to properly price securities in three mutual funds that it managed.  In the complaint, the Commission states that this proceeding concerns the misstatement of the Net Asset Values (“NAV’s”) of certain registered investment companies (the “Funds”) managed by UBSGAM. UBSGAM failed to cause certain fixed-income securities in the portfolios of the Funds to be valued in accordance with the Funds’ fair valuation procedures. UBSGAM’s failure to properly fair value these securities resulted in a misstatement of the NAVs of the Funds.

Netassetvalue (NAV) represents a fund’s per share marketvalue. This is the price at which investors buy (“bid price”) fund shares from a fund company and sell them (“redemption price”) to a fund company. It is derived by dividing the total value of all the cash and securities in a fund’s portfolio, less any liabilities, by the number of shares outstanding. A NAV computation is undertaken once at the end of each trading day based on the closing market prices of the portfolio’s securities.  This number is important to investors, because it is from NAV that the price per unit of a fund is calculated.

The SEC found that in June 2008, UBSGAM bought 54 fixed income securities; most of them were purchases of non-agency mortgage-backed securities.  Forty eight of these securities were then valued at prices substantially in excess of the transaction prices, including many at least 100% higher.  The valuations used by UBS were provided by pricing sources that did not appear to take into account the prices at which the mutual funds had purchased the securities, the SEC said.  Because the Funds did not properly or timely fair value the Securities, the NAV’s of the funds were misstated between one cent and 10 cents per share for several days in June 2008, violating rule 22c-1 adopted pursuant to Section 22c of the Investment Company Act.  Merri Jo Gillette, Regional Director of the SEC’s Chicago Regional Office said “Fortunately this misconduct was brought to light quickly, so the duration was short and the harm to investors minimal.”

UBSGAM agreed to pay $300,000 to settle the SEC’s charges.

SEC Charges Life Partners Holdings for Fraudulent Activities Involving Life Settlements

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has charged Life Partners Holdings, a publicly traded, Texas based financial services firm, and three of its senior executives: Chairman and CEO – Brian Pardo, President and General Counsel – Scott Peden, and its CFO – David Martin with disclosure and accounting fraud.

Life Partners buys and sells interests in life insurance policies on the secondary market. In these deals, life insurance owners sell their policies to investors in exchange for a smaller lump-sum payment.

A life settlement is a financial transaction in which the owner of a life insurance policy sells an unneeded policy to a third party for more than its cash value and less than its face value. A life settlement is an alternative to the surrender or lapse of a policy, or when the owner of a life insurance policy no longer needs or wants the policy, the policy is underperforming or can no longer afford to pay the premiums.

The SEC alleges that Life Partners executives misled shareholders by failing to disclose a significant risk to Life Partners’ business.  The company was underestimating the life expectancy rate used to price its transactions.  This estimate is an important and critical factor used to calculate the company’s revenue and profit margins.   Additionally, the accounting method used by Life Partners, overvalued the company’s assets creating the appearance of a steady stream of earnings from brokering the life settlement transactions.    As a result, the SEC says, Life Partners materially misstated net income from fiscal year 2007 through the third quarter of fiscal year 2011.

“Life Partners duped its shareholders by employing an unqualified medical doctor to assign baseless life-expectancy estimates to the underlying insurance policies,” said Robert Khuzami, head of the SEC’s enforcement division. “This deception misled shareholders into thinking that the company’s revenue model was sustainable when in fact it was illusory.”

Additionally, the SEC charged Pardo and Peden with insider trading, for allegedly selling shares of the company while having knowledge and in possession of material, non-public information showing that Life Partners, Inc. underestimated life expectancy estimates.   During this period of time, Pardo and Peden sold about $11.5 million and $300,000, respectively, of Life Partners stock at inflated prices, while knowing the revenue estimates were not accurate.